The world's No. 1 bike racer is not the world champion.
Ten minutes after the finish of the cyclocross world championships on Saturday in Louisville, Ky., Katie Compton is clean and composed. The sticky bluegrass mud has been wiped from her face. She has donned a fresh jersey, bearing the stars and stripes of the U.S., and she has mustered a thin smile as she speaks to reporters and photographers assembled around her.
"I'll be back," she said. "I want to win a world championship."
A dominant rider returns home
Over the past three months, the 34-year-old Compton has competed in dozens of cyclocross races -- a thoroughly European cycling discipline that combines elements of road racing and mountain biking, on a course interspersed with steeplechase-like obstacles. In the best season of her life, she held such a large lead in the World Cup that she skipped the last event of the international eight-race series and still became the first American to claim the title. She lost only four times during the season, and never finished worse than second.
On Saturday, Compton arrived at the most important race of her life as the undeniable favorite, racing on home soil. It was the first time the cyclocross world championships had been held outside of Europe in the event's 60-plus-year history. Louisville, a city that has embraced bicycling as part of an urban renewal, constructed a permanent cyclocross venue in Eva Bandman Park, two miles from downtown on the banks of the Ohio River.
The bugle call of the Kentucky Derby blared over the loudspeakers as the elite women's field came to the starting line. Two exuberant announcers introduced Compton and the competitors beside her one by one. There were the 2011 world championships bronze medalist Katerina Nash of the Czech Republic; Italian champion Eva Lechner; and 2012 Olympic mountain biking bronze medalist, American Georgia Gould.
And then there was Marianne Vos of Holland, who already owns five cyclocross world championships, who triumphed in both the Olympic road race and the road racing world championships in 2012, who is widely considered the best female bike racer of all time, and who is only 25 years old.
Thousands of fans lined the twisting, 1.5-mile course. They blared horns and clanged cowbells and beat on the boards lining the course like a never-ending drum roll.
Five men with the muscular shaved legs of amateur bike racers had painted K-A-T-I-E across their bare chests. A few torn American men and women in attendance wore bright orange T-shirts that read, "When I grow up I want to ride like Marianne Vos."
The temperature hovered at 30 degrees, and an inch of snow had fallen, turning the course into a brutal mix of slushy mud and ice. At 11 a.m., Compton and Vos and 30 other racers from around the world took off in a chaotic, mass sprint. As they swept through a left-hand bend onto a wide-open grassy straightaway, Compton sat in third place, right on Vos' wheel.
Compton's long road to starting line
On a whim in 2000, Compton tried her first cyclocross race. She'd been racing bikes and winning national titles in a variety of disciplines since she was 9, but was nearly burned out of the sport. At the race, the festive, grass-roots atmosphere that personifies cyclocross in the U.S. reinvigorated Compton's passion for cycling.
Also, she nearly won.
But before she could pursue cyclocross more seriously, she had to overcome a mysterious leg condition that caused her muscles to seize with searing pain and could keep her from riding, and sometimes even walking, for weeks at a time. Dozens of doctors remain vexed by the condition, which Compton describes as "like being stabbed with a hot knife." One doctor botched a muscle biopsy that left a scar in her thigh; another suggested she should try "thinking more positively."
At times the leg pain became so constant and intense that Compton's dad -- who had introduced her to cycling as the president of their local club in Delaware -- drove her from class to class at the University of Delaware because she couldn't press her car's brake without intense pain. After an incapacitating, nearly monthlong bout, during which Compton became overly reliant on pain pills, she resolved that if she couldn't cure the condition, she'd at least learn to manage its onset.
Compton studied physiology and discovered that her issues worsened when she pushed herself to utter exhaustion -- a trait that had previously contributed to her success. If she listened to her body, and did one fewer interval at the end of a grueling workout, instead of -- as her will urged her to -- one more, she found she could race with only intermittent bouts of pain.
But even as she ascended to the top of the cyclocross world -- raking in nine consecutive national titles, dominating the European scene and placing on the podium at three previous world championships, including a heartbreaking second place to Vos in 2011 -- the leg pains sometimes struck at the worst possible moments.
In 2010, Compton was leading the World Cup overall when her legs seized at the end of the season. When she showed up at the world championships in the Czech Republic, she hadn't been capable of riding in three weeks. She could barely pedal her bike, and dropped out after only one lap.
On the first lap of the world championships in Louisville, it wasn't Compton's legs giving her trouble. Her bike's chain was skipping between its two front rings, causing her to spin in sections where she needed power.
Meanwhile, Vos, seeing that her only real rival had faded to eighth place, accelerated off the front of the pack. As Vos crossed the start/finish line after the first of the 40-minute race's six laps, she already held a 10-second lead over second place, and an incredible 26-second advantage over Compton.
On Lap 2, Compton pulled into pit row, where her mechanic, Mark Legg, who is also her coach, manager and husband, waited with a new bike. Compton had one thing on her mind: "damage control." As Vos rode with almost robotic perfection out front -- dismounting to march up and over each of the course's three sharp run-ups with soldierly precision -- Compton worked her way back into medal contention, picking off racers one by one. In the course's wooded hills, a section that contained the most challenging obstacles, Compton went to work.
In those woods, the race's most rabid fans also gathered. They clung to the metal barriers three rows deep and climbed into the trees to gain a better view.
With two laps to go, Compton had moved into third and was neck-and-neck with Vos' teammate, Sanne Van Paassen, while Lechner and Nash chased close behind. As they entered one of the course's most treacherous sections -- an off-camber, downhill U-turn leading to a steep, slippery climb -- Van Paassen rode high in the slick snow, while Compton went low in the rutted mud. Van Paassen's tires gave way, and she slid down the hill, nearly taking Compton with her. Behind, Lechner lost traction as well, and the two felled riders formed a roadblock in front of Nash.
Compton made the turn and powered up the climb alone in second place, and the crowd exploded in jubilation.
"I couldn't even hear myself breathe out there," Compton said.
But Vos was too perfect, too talented, too determined, too far out in front.
Compton crossed the finish line with a one-handed salute, proud of her gutsy ride. And with a vow that she would be back.